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These tattoos aren't artful—they help identify Iraq's dead

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Ali Abbas decided that his upper right thigh was the best place for a tattoo because no one gets tortured there.

He'd seen hundred of bodies in the city morgue and dozens of hospitals during his 18-day search for his missing uncle. He'd seen drill marks in swollen, often unrecognizable heads, slash marks across necks, bullet holes in backs, abdomens and swollen hands. He'd seen bodies that had been thrown into the river, so swollen they'd barely looked human. But by and large, the thighs had been intact.

So that's where he decided to have his name, address and phone number tattooed, in case the day comes when someone is searching for his body.

Tattoos are considered a sin in Islam, which holds that believers shouldn't deface their bodies. And tattoo shops are difficult to find in Baghdad. They're often in the basements of more reputable shops.

But at least some tattoo shops are seeing more and more Iraqis who, like Abbas, are willing to risk offending Islam to ease their families' grief in the event of their deaths. The owner of one tattoo shop in central Baghdad admitted that he'd done such tattoos, but said he didn't want to talk about it for fear that he'd be killed.

That some Muslims are getting tattoos is an intimate reflection of national chaos, and an outward symbol of the inner turmoil the chaos has created.

There's nothing artful about these tattoos. The branding has the efficient look of a business card, written in clear, bland type.

"This is our life now," Abbas said as he explained why he doesn't think that having a tattoo makes him a bad Shiite. "I think this is the best way for my family to recognize me. Everyone knows in my family that I have it: my mother, my brother, my wife."

There's no way to know how many Iraqis have made Abbas' choice. Officials at Baghdad's morgue say they've used tattoos to identify bodies, but never one with a name and address. Police officers told McClatchy Newspapers that they've encountered bodies with names and phone numbers tattooed on them. They've called the numbers and let the families pick up the bodies instead of taking them to the morgue.

Jalal Ahmed, a police officer in southern Baghdad, said residents called his station three months ago because they'd found a body in the street. Fearful that a militia would kill them for approaching the body, they put off calling until dogs began eating it.

Ahmed found the tattoo: "The dogs had torn part of the clothes, and I saw a tattoo with his full name, on the upper part of one of his arms. He was Atheer Mohammad," Ahmed said. "We asked around, and nobody knew him. He was from a different neighborhood, so we called" the number.

Whatever the extent of its use, the decision to tattoo reflects the country's level of violence. It seems that anyone can be kidnapped and killed for any reason.

Abbas realized how possible that was a few days before he got the tattoo. "I saw two vehicles, and they took five people out and shot them in front of my eyes," he recalled. "I was about to drive away. They stared at me, and I thought they were going to shoot me too, but they drove away. And I thought, `What if I were one of the five people?' Nobody knows them. Everyone is scared. No one will help them."

There are few Iraqis who haven't had to search for family members who've been kidnapped, tortured and tossed in another neighborhood. Or who know of someone killed by a homemade bomb, a shooting or a car bombing. Or taken on the way home from work only to show up at the morgue days later. Or discovered by American soldiers in makeshift graves.

A family's search can take days, and frequently it doesn't turn up a body. The idea of not properly burying a loved one is almost as torturous to a pious Muslim as not knowing how or why the person died.

About 100 bodies are found each day nationwide. Most people have been taken from one neighborhood and killed in another.

In Baghdad, the morgue has become a Shiite-dominated wing of the Ministry of Health, and some Sunni Muslims dread going there to pick up loved ones for fear they'll be kidnapped while they're there. Some police officers are afraid to approach bodies in their communities, fearing that they've been booby-trapped.

Moreover, in the absence of an able nonsectarian security force, many assume that the government can't defend them from the raging ethnic and religious violence. In some cases, they charge that the government is contributing to it.

Abbas, 24, who cuts meat off kabob racks for a living, lives in Kefah, a poorer western Baghdad neighborhood. He has a car, and his neighbors often ask him where he got the money to purchase one. He worries that the decision to kill could be fickle.

"They ask: How did I get it? And they don't know that I work hard. Maybe they will kill me for this car."

Abbas' uncle, Hussein Ali Jassim, disappeared four months ago after leaving his shift at a police station in western Baghdad. The family waited for the ransom call, and when it didn't come, Abbas searched for him, first at the hospitals, where he asked to see the refrigerated bodies, then twice at the morgue. When he didn't find him, "I figured he was still being tortured."

On his third morgue visit, he saw a photo of a swollen face that he thought might be his uncle's. But he wasn't sure until he saw the tattoo on the right arm, a heart surrounded by his uncle's and aunt's initials.

Abbas was shaken by his uncle's death. He decided to brand himself when a friend, policeman Ahmad Ali, 23, showed him his tattoo.

Ali said he got a tattoo with his name, address and phone number because he walked by a wall in his precinct every day showing the faces of the 60 officers who'd died violently, many of them after they'd been kidnapped.

Now officers share with one another where they can get tattoos. "Getting tattoos has become very popular among policemen and national guards," Ali said. "We're kidnapped all the time. This is the only way we will be returned home. We face death every day."

Abbas didn't consult anyone before he got his tattoo, and his wife and mother cried when they saw it. He said he planned to have his two younger brothers tattooed when they're older.

"My mother was blaming me: `Why are you bringing death to yourself?' I told her it was just a precaution," Abbas said. "I don't assume I will die. Ultimately, it's up to God whether I live or die."


(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.


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